Similar to my last grammar post on ‘and’ versus ‘to’, I see mixed use with ‘who’ versus ‘that’ quite often.
Usage between these two words is more personal preference than a grammar rule, as ‘that’ has been used for years and using ‘who’ is a more modern choice.
For me, I choose to use ‘who’ when referring to a person or specific people and ‘that’ when referring to a group or class of people, animals, objects, or a combination of people and things.
- Sue is a nurse who/that enjoys the late shift.
- The cat is the type who/that shreds toilet paper.
- The puppy who/that chewed my shoe is in big trouble.
- The people who/that met last night had coffee this morning.
- The cabin who/that my father built is still standing.
- It is either Mary or her magic hat who/that is to blame.
- Todd is the man who/that lives next door.
- There’s the house who/that is built into the side of the cliff.
- A company who/that makes toys can be a fun place to work.
- The man who/that had plenty of money for years has filed for bankruptcy.
- Girls who/that have long hair buy more shampoo than short-haired girls. (referring to girls in general)
- The girls who/that become cheerleaders have a lot of energy. (referring to a specific group of girls)
Since there is no hard-and-fast grammar rule for this (and if you aren’t following a specific style guide), when in doubt, use ‘that’. When referring to a person, use ‘who.’
Have you noticed this difference when reading or writing?
What other grammar topics would you like to see?
Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, technology, and realty businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.